How to guide your child’s online reputation

By: Priya Kumar

A researcher who studies the intersection of families, technology use and privacy shares her tips on how to help kids protect their online reputation.

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Children Taking Selfie | Online Reputation

We’ve written about the importance of helping kids manage their digital footprints—the information about them scattered across the web and apps. Collectively, this information constitutes their digital identity, or the way they are represented online. And this in turn shapes their reputation.

In this guide, we’ll show you how to help your kids pay attention to this and shepherd their digital identity.

What is an online reputation?

Think of identity and reputation as two sides of a coin. Your identity is how you see yourself, while your reputation is how others perceive you. Naturally, most of us want other people to think positively of us—but ultimately, you can’t control what people think about you. What we can do is recognize the kind of information that’s available about us online and consider how people might interpret it. Google yourself. What comes up? Does it reflect the way you want to be seen?

Children now use digital devices at very young ages, and well-meaning family members may share photos of your kids on social media. Which means that little ones might have digital footprints even before they can walk. Far more than in the past, this generation of children has information available about them online.

How to teach kids about managing their online reputation

You can’t control your child’s reputation any more than you can control your own, but you can help them navigate the process of identity development by encouraging them to reflect on the connections between their online activities and their reputation.

A term often used in this conversation is “managing” or “guarding” your online reputation. But I’d like to propose a different word: shepherding. A shepherd is someone who protects but also guides, not by forcing others to do their bidding but by nudging them in the appropriate direction. By shepherding your child’s online activities that create their digital footprint, you’re helping them learn how to make positive choices when it comes to interacting online.

You and they likely have different reasons for caring about online reputations. You may be focused on how your child’s digital reputation will affect their ability to get into a good school or get a job, while your child probably cares more about how their reputation affects their friendships. Learning how to build healthy relationships is one of the most important processes of childhood, so focusing on their reputation with friends and classmates will help keep them tuned in to your advice.

Here are some age-specific tips for shepherding your child’s digital reputation.

Ages 3–8

At this stage, children are starting to understand who they are as individuals and how to connect with peers. They’re using tablets, smartphones, gaming devices and voice-activated assistants to watch videos, play games, listen to music and ask for information. As more child-focused digital devices, like internet-connected toys and smartwatches, hit the market, young children’s online interactions will increase.

The concept of a reputation is still fairly abstract for young children, so your role here is to stay aware of what your children are doing online and to look for moments when you can help them consider how others might respond to the things they do or say online.

Use something other than their names for usernames. Since our reputations are strongly tied to our names, avoid using your child’s first or last name when setting up any online accounts for them. Encourage your child to use generic information if they have to create their own accounts. This can minimize the chance that their early digital interactions—whether silly or misguided—get permanently attached to their digital identity.

Lead with curiosity, not criticism. When your child does something that might reflect poorly on them, such as posting a mean or rude comment, help them understand why such actions are problematic. Approach these conversations from a position of curiosity—aiming to understand what drove them to engage in the behavior—rather than judgment. Mistakes are not only inevitable, but also opportunities for children to learn how their actions can affect themselves and others.

Ages 9–12

At this stage, children are juggling the pressures of peer relationships and the physical and psychological changes that accompany growing up. Many are getting their own smartphones, and some began to use social media as early as age 7. They’re also starting to use digital platforms to do homework, often on school-owned laptops or tablets. As their digital footprints grow, their online reputations will develop.

Talk about the differences between using personal and school devices. School accounts are linked to a child’s name, and school devices often come with monitoring software that allows school personnel to see what children are doing online. Some systems will automatically flag it when students type or search for suspicious or inappropriate content. Explain to your student that what they do on their school devices affects their reputation too.

Pick a unique username on social media and multiplayer games. If your child is gaming or using social media, encourage them to avoid using their first or last name in their username and to use privacy settings to limit the audience.

Resist the temptation to monitor everything they do or post. Be aware of what digital platforms your child uses and what they do online. But don’t snoop. After all, when you were in middle school, did you want your parents eavesdropping on your conversations with friends? Instead, work with your child to establish boundaries. In a study I did with the University of Maryland’s Human Computer Interaction Lab, our team found that children are more comfortable with parents monitoring their location and seeing their contacts than they are with parents checking their text messages. Children recognize the importance of parental oversight when it comes to their physical safety, but they also want space to develop relationships with others.

Help your child push back against peer pressure. Recognize that your child will likely encounter difficult situations online, and let your child know that you’re there to help them work through it. For instance, your child may see peers posting threats or mean comments about someone, or they may be asked to send inappropriate photos. If your child participates in online harassment or feels pressured into sexting, they could create a digital footprint that not only affects their reputation, but could also put them in difficult situations. Make sure your child knows that if they see anything online that makes them uncomfortable, they can come to you or another trusted adult for help.

Ages 13–17

Teenagers are navigating peer and romantic relationships while grappling with the daunting reality of transitioning into adulthood. By this point, they’re well aware of how digital interactions affect their reputations, and your role is to support them while also respecting their growing autonomy. That means seeking opportunities to connect but not forcing the conversation.

Set a Google Alert for your child’s name. If something comes up, show it to them and ask them how they feel about that information being attached to their name and available for anyone to see. These alerts don’t apply to mentions in chat rooms and most social media platforms, though. And it’s important to approach this conversation from a place of curiosity, rather than judgment. You want your teen to open up, not shut down.

Lean in, don’t lecture. While it might be tempting to focus on how your teen’s online reputation may affect their college or job prospects, resist the urge to lecture. Teens are going through the tumultuous experience of experimenting with different kinds of identities and confronting profound questions about who they want to be and what they want to do. While only they can ultimately answer those questions, you can show them you’ll stand by them no matter what others think of them.

Shepherding your child’s online reputation can feel daunting, but remember, your role is to guide and support rather than force or control. Keep the lines of communication open with your child, and appreciate the chance to watch them grow into themselves.

Monitor their location and new contacts with Smart Family.

About the author:

Priya Kumar is an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Information Sciences and Technology. Her research examines how the datafication of family life affects privacy and agency. 


The author has been compensated by Verizon for this article.

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